Good History

Christopher Hill

  • After the Reformation: Essays in Honour of J.H. Hexter edited by Barbara Malament
    Manchester, 363 pp, £17.95, December 1980, ISBN 0 7190 0805 0
  • Puritans and Adventurers by T.H. Breen
    Oxford, 270 pp, £10.00, October 1980, ISBN 0 19 502728 0
  • On History by Fernand Braudel, translated by Sarah Matthews
    Weidenfeld, 226 pp, £10.95, January 1981, ISBN 0 297 77880 3
  • Sociology and History by Peter Burke
    Allen and Unwin, 116 pp, £6.95, August 1980, ISBN 0 19 502728 0

Professor Hexter made his mark in the learned world over forty years ago with an article in the American Historical Review called ‘The Problem of the Presbyterian Independents’. He pointed out that many members of the Long Parliament whom historians had traditionally labelled ‘Independents’ were appointed elders of the Presbyterian Church set up in 1645-8, and that many ‘Presbyterians’ sat in the Rump of the Long Parliament, which used to be described as ‘Independent’. To upset so many apple-carts in so short a space must have given him great pleasure: since his article no responsible historian has ever dared to use the labels ‘Presbyterian’ and ‘Independent’ in the old carefree way. Three years later followed The Reign of King Pym, a masterly study of Parliamentary politics during the early years of the English Revolution which has dominated historical thinking ever since. In 1952, he published More’s Utopia: The Biography of an Idea, a competent but not epoch-making work. Since then he has published no single full-length work of historical research. The editor of the volume under review says that ‘for over thirty years … he has served as the conscience of his fellow scholars’. He has written books with titles like Doing History and The History Primer.

The contents of this festschrift are rather curious. There is nothing on the House of Commons in the 1640s, on which Hexter’s best work was written, though Elizabeth Read Foster analyses ‘The Journal of the House of Lords for the Long Parliament’. There is nothing on Sir Thomas More. Few of the contributors are former pupils. The five most distinguished are neither pupils nor colleagues nor even Americans. A specially commissioned article by a professor of philosophy, Louis O. Mink, discusses Hexter’s theories of history – his most recent interest.

Mink is polite but rather devastatingly unenthusiastic. His conclusion appears to be that what Hexter has said, in several volumes, is that good history is what good historians write. As one whom Hexter does not regard as a good historian, I would feel happier with rather more definition here. We all think our own kind of history the right kind, but Hexter’s kind is perhaps narrower than that of some very good historians. Mink observes that ‘Hexter seldom resists the temptation to caricature his philosophical adversaries, a temptation all the more seductive because those adversaries have not joined the debate and therefore appear in it only by courtesy of his imputations.’ Discussing Hexter’s view that ‘perceptions, intentions and ideas should not be imputed to people who could not possibly have entertained them,’ Mink remarks mildly that ‘a salutary maxim, even though argued and illustrated, is not a theory of history.’ The argument that ‘ “class interest” cannot be an explanation of the actions of people who have no conception of the class to which they have been retrospectively assigned ... is a different kind of thesis,’ which ‘cannot be settled one way or the other merely by examining historical evidence’.

The reference is to one of Hexter’s best-known (but in my view least satisfactory) essays, ‘The Myth of the Middle Class’. Rightly pointing out that the middle class tends to be continually rising in historians’ accounts, and that the phrase is frequently used without proper definition, Hexter too easily knocks down his men of straw. Some historians argued that ‘the middle class’ ruled England in the 16th century; others argued that ‘the middle class’ came to power in the 17th century. Both statements cannot be true, but it does not therefore follow that both are false. The answer lies in careful definition of terms and careful historical analysis. But some historians were so overwhelmed by Hexter’s brusque knockdown arguments that, as Laura Stevenson O’Connell puts it in this volume, ‘in the years following [Hexter’s] attack on the “myth of the middle class” ’ they dropped the phrase, ‘constructing instead new models of the Tudor social hierarchy that omitted the middle class altogether’.

But the middle class, under another name, is in again these days. Conrad Russell, Hexter’s successor at Yale and no friend of loose generalisation, has recently envisaged ‘a new social change explanation’ of the English Civil War, based on the power of the rising yeomanry, tradesmen and artificers. I think he is right: I am sure Hexter is wrong to extend his argument that ‘ideas should not be imputed to people who could not possibly have entertained them’ to conclude that ‘events in the past should not be described in terms which contemporaries could not possibly have entertained.’ Men died of TB before the disease was diagnosed; the thing ‘revolution’ could happen before men had a word for it. How indeed could they have a word for it until it had happened?

David Underdown, one of the five big names contributing to this festschrift, has a characteristically wise survey of ‘Community and Class’ in the English Revolution. Disregarding Hexter’s prohibitions, he concludes: ‘The Marxist model of local political behaviour is useful in that it reminds us that the English Revolution was not simply a collision between groups of peers and gentry operating in a social vacuum.’ He then adds, however: ‘The analysis is most valid for places in which industrial or commercial development had produced something resembling a class society: in the towns – London above all – and in areas with mixed industrial and agrarian economics. It is less easily applied to the wider world of rural England’ – which Underdown goes on to discuss.

G.R. Elton’s piece on ‘Politics and the Pilgrimage of Grace’ is fascinating. That rebellion turns out to have been the creation of a court faction, the enemies of Thomas Cromwell trying to oust him by stirring up popular revolt against him. They ‘utilised the social, economic and religious grievances to be found in the disaffected North, grievances linked not to feudal or popular uproar, but to the increasing distrust felt by the regional gentry towards a threatening and revolutionary court policy’. Ideology was as unimportant as it always has been for Elton. And he leaves us with the sort of provocative remark we expect of him: ‘The situation in the North in 1536 resembled much more the situation which produced the civil war of the 17th century than that which accounts for the civil war of the 15th.’ ‘Discuss,’ as they say in exam papers.

Lawrence Stone contributes a long article on ‘The Residential Development of the West End of London in the 17th Century’, which combines the two subjects on which he is always at his best – architecture and the aristocracy. Much land to the west of the City passed to greater nobles at the time of the Reformation. As London expanded, the nobility muscled in on building schemes much as they muscled in on monopolies. In the 1630s they only could work the Court to obtain licences permitting contravention of royal prohibitions on the further expansion of the City. After the Revolution, speculative builders provided capital for building on 31 or 41-year leases: the long-term profits came to the fortunate peers. ‘London’s unique appearance in 1700 was the product of England’s unique features: social segregation; political participation; an impoverished crown; the concentration of many functions in a single city; and an ideology that exalted life in the country.’

Quentin Skinner’s ‘The Origins of the Calvinist Theory of Revolution’ is a by-product of his great work, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought. Revolutionary thinkers like Ponet, Goodman and Knox, he argues, owed more to Lutheran than to Calvinist ideas; and he traces justification of popular revolt to a group of Parisian nominalists of whom the most radical was Jacques Almain, the most significant John Mair (1467-1550) – a Scot who taught Knox and Buchanan long before the Protestant Reformation.

John Pocock is so dazzling in ‘Authority and Property: the Question of Liberal Origins’ that one has to rub one’s eyes hard to be able to see anything clearly. His concepts march and counter-march like clouds across the sky, making bewilderingly beautiful patterns. Locke cannot be fitted into Pocock’s latest pattern, so ‘if one desires to study the first great ideologist of the Whig system of propertied control, one will not study Locke but Defoe.’ I would like to believe that. Pocock isolates the royalist Matthew Wren as the most systematic exponent of ‘possessive individualism’. The main object of throwing out these sparkling ideas is to annoy the orthodox: Pocock wastes no time on asking why ‘a possessive-individualist view of society was promoted by members of a recovering ruling class, rather than by members of any new class which was replacing it.’ One answer might be that the chaotic transformations and confusions of the Revolution had led the royalist Sir Dudley Digges to draw on Hobbes’s ideas long before Wren; they led men like Cowley, Davenant and Charleton consciously to decide that they must take over the mental armoury of their opponents. But then Pocock shares the Hexterian fallacy of trying to think of the past only in categories known to contemporaries. This leads him to believe that ‘ “commerce” as a new ... force in history’ was not noticed until the financial revolution of the 1690s ‘confronted the ideology of real property with a threat from the operations not of a trading market but of a system of public credit’. It is magnificent: but it needs a lot of thinking about after the dazzlement is over.

Brian Levack and Linda Levy Peck write about the reign of James I, a subject to which Professor Hexter returned recently with a devastating attack on the so-called ‘revisionists’: those who believe either that the English Civil War was an accident with no causes at all or that it was the product of aristocratic intrigue. Against them Hexter has reasserted (rightly, in my view) the traditional picture of MPs opposing the developing power of the prerogative, with some sense of the constitutional issues involved. Levack shows that behind the English Parliament’s opposition to James I’s scheme for uniting England and Scotland lay ‘a genuine fear that the union would jeopardise established constitutional principles.’ Linda Peck’s ‘Corruption at the Court of James I’ reinforces this by analysing how ‘on several questions, including sale of honours and offices, bribes and Spanish pensions, the court and its opponents held different views of what constituted corruption,’ and that this ‘helped to shape the successful “country” attack on the royal prerogative’ and on the royal favourite Buckingham.

There is only one article on a country other than England: Robert Harding’s ‘Aristocrats and Lawyers in French Provincial Government, 1559-1648’. William J. Bouwsma writes on ‘Anxiety and the Formation of Early Modern Culture’. His most interesting point is that the words ‘anxiety’ and ‘anxious’ entered the English language in the 16th and 17th centuries. Professor Bouwsma attributes anxiety to the rise of towns. He finds a good deal of anxiety about in the 14th century ‘and for some time thereafter’ – till the 18th century, apparently. ‘It poisoned friendships and family ties ... The marriage bed itself now seemed less genial ... Men who had learned a general distrust of life could hardly have been capable of a careless spontaneity in the most intimate realms of experience.’ Indeed. H.C. Erik Midelfort’s ‘Madness in Early Modern Europe’ is a critique of Michel Foucault.

An interesting article by Howard Nenner on 1688 criticises the view that Whigs and Tories were agreed in using the occasion to impose conditions on William III: rather, he argues, the Convention Parliament was hamstrung by collective uneasiness about what could be done constitutionally in the absence of a king. The Declaration of Rights had no binding effect until it was transformed into a Bill and formally enacted with the King’s assent. This very plausible thesis might have been more interesting if Dr Nenner had asked why MPs felt this ‘collective uneasiness’. He supplies the answer when he quotes Roger Morrice: ‘There was another power (though it was very unwarrantable) that the Mobile had.’ Memories of popular action in the 1640s may well explain the desire in 1688-9 to get a king safely on the throne as quickly as possible.

Laura Stevenson O’Connell writes on ‘The Elizabethan Bourgeois Hero-Tale’. ‘Bourgeois’ is a daring word to use in a Hexter festschrift, and Ms O’Connell prudently starts by disavowing ‘the middle class’ and in particular L.B. Wright’s Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England, which was the object of Hexter’s particular wrath. But ‘the problem, as even the most sceptical reader of Middle-Class Culture has to admit, is that many Elizabethan authors wrote books specifically appealing to the self-consciousness of merchants and craftsmen ... Thus, even if there was no large middle class such as Wright described, there were bourgeois hero-tales, and there were tradesmen who could read them.’ (Wright’s sin seems to have lain only in seeing the middle class as ‘large’.) This ritual over, Ms O’Connell proceeds to a sensitive analysis of stories by Deloney, Heywood, Dekker and others. Though the writers of bourgeois tales wish to glorify merchants and apprentices, this is done by crediting them with the chivalric virtues. But in Deloney’s Jack of Newbury the King has to accept Jack as a king in his own domain, and comes to recognise that ‘the welfare of the Commonwealth of Ants is more important to England’s wellbeing than the ambitious wars of the Prince of Butterflies’ (Wolsey). ‘In the early 17th century,’ Ms O’Connell concludes, ‘bourgeois pride was expressed in terms of the values of the élite ... by the end of the 17th century, it was expressed in terms of the values of the middle class’. (My italics.) The change, she suggests, may have occurred after ‘the social turmoil of the civil war ... precipitated the development of a bourgeois value system.’ She treads very warily: but she arrives at a convincing conclusion.

She would not have needed to be cautious, though, if she had read a brilliant article which might have been written by a convert to a rather sophisticated Marxism but is signed J.H. Hexter. It is entitled ‘Property, Monopoly and Shakespeare’s Richard II’ and it appeared in a collective volume, Culture and Politics: From Puritanism to the Enlightenment (1980). Hexter demonstrates very convincingly that ‘the inheritance of real property is the heart’ of Shakespeare’s play. Shakespeare deliberately ignored the possibility, which his sources offered him, of presenting Bolingbroke as a disinterested patriot. Playgoers, Hexter suggests, ‘may have had a more ready empathy than we with a man’ who sought to resist ‘the deputy anointed of the Lord’ on the grounds that ‘he wanted his own property back.’ Nor would this theme appeal only to the landed class. The groundlings may well have included ‘men who ... could not live as starchmakers or glassmakers or papermakers’ because a court-favoured monopolist had taken ‘their property in the form of their craft’ from them. Property ‘meant more than goods and more than estates. Men had a property in them, indeed, but they also had a property in their liberty and held the law itself as a due inheritance.’ Hexter and Conrad Russell must get together to produce a new theory of the triumph of the middle class in the 17th-century revolution.

This article shows that Hexter is still at the height of his powers. Let us not ask too pedantically how it fits with some of his earlier writings. Let us rather congratulate the recipient of this mixed bag of a festschrift on having pupils who contradict his pet prejudices. Let us forget the (in my view) occasional silliness of his theorising, the (in my view) rather bullying tone of some of his polemics. Let us remember the intellectual brilliance of his work on the Long Parliament, and congratulate him on showing, in his latest articles, that his insights, and his writing, can still be as good as ever. If good history is what good historians write, then Jack Hexter at his best is a good historian indeed.

Professor Breen, who is certainly a good historian, dedicates his book to Hexter. He has had a wholly original idea. Historians explain the differences which soon appeared between the social systems of New England and Virginia by differences in the environment. Professor Breen looks, from the other side, at the particular time and place of emigration from England, and at reasons for emigrating. The vast mass of New England settlers came from East Anglia and Kent, clothing and Puritan counties. Professor Breen rightly refuses to distinguish between economic and religious reasons for emigration: both existed in Laud’s England, often in the same person. The Stuart government was increasingly interfering in local affairs, and Professor Breen points to the intense localism of the New England villages and towns, their rejection of interference even by their elected representatives. Yet because of their shared memories, the communities respected one another’s autonomy, and – allowing for occasional ostracism of cultural misfits – conducted their affairs in a strikingly democratic manner. They ‘gave the church back to the local communities’. Even officers of the militia were elected, and so it could never be used as an instrument of coercion or tax-collecting against the will of the localities. Professor Breen sees in all this a reaction against the centralised autocracy of English government in the 1620s and 1630s. It is another striking argument for the Hexter case that there really was popular opposition to the proto-absolutism of Charles I.

In Virginia there was no community sense, there were no autonomous villages, no towns: settlers with no shared roots in England spread themselves as widely as possible to grow the maximum amount of tobacco for the market, regardless of danger from Indians. Seventeenth-century Virginia exhibited the unacceptable face of capitalism – competitive individualists exploiting labourers (often shanghaied) who were little better than slaves even before black labour was introduced. There were none of the radical gentry and ministers who formed a respected élite in New England: only get-rich-quick adventurers, each mistrusting the other. Virginian gentry culture was a blend of ‘competitiveness, individualism and materialism’ which Hobbes would have recognised. Stability came only after revolts and civil wars such as New England never knew, and after the influx of African labour had given all whites common interests in preserving the slave system.

Braudel has been called the greatest living historian. But this is neither his greatest nor his latest book. It is a collection of articles, the earliest dating from 1944, the most recent from 1963. Not unexpectedly, there is a good deal of repetition. Three pages in one article are actually repeated verbatim in another. It is also a very provincial book: French insularity exceeds even that of the English. Alongside scores of French historians and a few Americans, Arnold Toynbee is the only English historian mentioned.

Braudel’s main theme is stated in a lecture given in 1950 on ‘The Situation of History’: ‘Historians today are beginning to be aware of an entirely new history.’ It must be a total history, embracing geography, economics, sociology. This is the programme which the periodical Annales has successfully carried out over the past half-century. If Braudel’s manifestoes have lost something of their cogency, this is because of the victories which the Annales programme has achieved.

Readers acquainted with Braudel’s history will find here all the familiar technical terms – rejection of histoire événementielle (traditional political-administrative history), emphasis on histoire de la longue durée and on conjoncture, an ill-defined word of many and elusive meanings including ‘crisis’, ‘turningpoint’. Braudel welcomed ‘models’ in a way that must have seemed rather dashing in 1958. Marx ‘was the first to construct true social models, on the basis of a historical longue durée’, though later Marxists have changed them for the worse, from hypotheses to ‘laws’.

All this was excellent stuff in its time. Historians who ‘believe that documentary authenticity was the repository of the whole truth’ produced ‘a new style of chronicle which in its desire for exactitude followed the history of events step by step as it emerged from ambassadorial letters or Parliamentary debates’. That has not lost its relevance today. It applies especially to those historians who are most suspicious of the other social sciences with whose contribution Braudel proposed to enrich ‘global history’. ‘The traditional kind of history,’ he warned in 1960, ‘will continue to dominate [our teaching] for a long while yet, because of an inertia which still exists though we may rail against it, because of the support of aged scholars, and because of the institutions which open their embracing arms to us when we ourselves cease to be dangerous revolutionaries and become good bourgeois – for there is a terrible bourgeoisie of the intellect.’ Alas, yes.

But Braudel professed – laudably – to be anxious not to establish a new orthodoxy: ‘For some, history is the total of all possible histories – an assemblage of professions of points of view, from yesterday, today and tomorrow. The only error, in my view, would be to choose one of these histories to the exclusion of all others.’ Later on: ‘For me, history can be conceived only in n dimensions.’

In 1950, Braudel refreshingly brushed aside many traditional problems which have occupied philosophers of history. Can history be a science if it cannot predict? Even more sterile, he says, is the ‘debate about objectivity and subjectivity in history ... from which we will never be free so long as philosophers, from force of habit perhaps, care to linger over it, and so long as they lack the courage to ask themselves whether even those sciences which claim to be real are not themselves both objective and subjective at the same time.’ Braudel was concerned in 1958 with ‘a general crisis in the human sciences: they are all overwhelmed by their own progress, if only because of the accumulation of new knowledge and the need to work together in a way which is yet to be properly organised ... They remain in the grip of an insidious and retrograde humanism.’ ‘The most difficult aspect of this restructuring of all the human sciences,’ he wrote in 1969, ‘concerns, as always, the crucial relationship between history and sociology, that massive rather confused science, crammed with all the riches of the past and of the future.’

And so we move on to Peter Burke, whose book ‘is written for, as well as about, both sociologists and historians’. He defines sociology as ‘the study of human society, with the emphasis on generalising about its structure. History may be defined as the study of human societies, with the emphasis on the differences between them and on the changes which have taken place in each one over time ... Each discipline can help to free the other from a kind of parochialism’ – though at the moment he sees their relations, in Braudel’s words, as a ‘dialogue of the deaf’.

One aspect of history’s parochialism is the Hexterian insistence on taking the past at its own valuation which I discussed earlier. The gentry in 17th-century England spoke of ‘the county community’ when they meant only ‘the gentry of the county’. Other social groups existed in the counties, and after 1640 they were able to express opinions which showed that they did not accept the ‘one-class’ view of society. ‘Some contemporary statements about the social structure,’ as Peter Burke puts it, ‘should be taken as justifictions rather than detached descriptions.’ For historians to repeat them uncritically is to perpetuate upper-class ideology.

On the other hand, as Burke points out, ‘the concept of ideology also has its dangers,’ invaluable though it is as a ‘corrective to the idea of communal consensus’:

Is a particular outlook or world view necessarily associated with a particular social class, or does it simply happen to be the view held by the majority of its members at a particular period? If necessarily associated, how do the attitudes of that class ever change? Does a ruling class ever share a common set of values without dissent? Do its members manipulate other social groups consciously or unconsciously? Does the ruling class accept legal or religious restraints on its own behaviour or not? Do all the ideas current in a given society serve to justify the social order, or are some ideas (scientific, perhaps, or aesthetic) autonomous? The trouble with the concept of ideology is that it encourages, though it does not necessitate, a crude form of reductionism in which religion, law and other forms of culture are seen simply as a mechanism for keeping the ruling class in power.

Peter Burke is also critical of the ‘parochialism’ of sociologists, instancing the catch-all term ‘modernisation’. When applied retrospectively to pre-industrial Europe ‘it gives the impression of a linear process.’ In fact, ‘traditional social structures seem to have been more diverse and also more resilient to change than the modernisation model allows.’ And ‘modernisation’ should not necessarily be thought of as an automatic process. ‘It may be useful to think in terms of the “management” of social change.’ Peter Burke quotes Lampedusa’s The Leopard, where one aristocrat says to another, ‘In order to keep everything as it is, we have to change everything,’ and refers to the talent of the British aristocracy for ‘changing in order not to change’.

Historians, Peter Burke concludes, ‘may have a contribution to make to a future model of social change which would take more account of diversity and of long-term trends than previous models had done, and specify the alternative paths and the constraints more clearly than before. Such a model, which allowed for “either ... or ... ” but also warned that “if ... then ... ”, would be of use to historians trying to understand particular societies as well as to sociologists in search of less inaccurate generalisations.’ Peter Burke’s book should help to remove some of the prejudices which sociologists and historians have about each other, and so may even contribute to the realisation of Braudel’s hope that ‘the social sciences, at least provisionally, would suspend their constant border disputes ... and make possible the first stages of some sort of coming together.’ That was written 22 years ago.